By Lauren Presutti
Diet, exercise, and sleep are basic needs that have surprisingly huge impacts on your mental health. We all navigate the world differently and our perceptions of mental health and wellness may vary drastically, but nonetheless we all have to attend to our basic needs regardless of our differences. In my work with clients, it’s often helpful to look at how someone is addressing their basic needs as a starting point because that information usually sheds light on their priorities, beliefs, and how they view self-care. My previous two blogs addressed diet and exercise. Today, I will finish the series by addressing sleep. While diet and exercise are equally important, I’m a little biased to the subject of sleep because there are few things I find more soothing than crawling under the warm covers after a long day and enjoying a good night of shut eye.
Rest is critical. Sleep gives your body and mind time to restabilize and recharge for the next day. Many people struggle with the idea of slowing down and may find prioritizing sleep to be unnecessary or non-important because they value extra time awake more than they value sleep. For example, have you ever sacrificed your sleep because you wanted more time for socializing, productivity, or activities? Especially if you are already crunched for time because of unexpected stress, parenting responsibilities, college classes, a work promotion, moving to a new home, planning for holidays, or any other time-consuming life event. We often look at our never-ending to-do list, begin to feel overwhelmed, and then believe that sacrificing sleep is the answer. The truth is, sacrificing sleep is not the answer.
When we don’t give our minds and bodies adequate time to rest, our daytime functionality and mental health is compromised. Without sufficient sleep, we are significantly more likely to struggle with concentration, stamina, memory, thinking skills, and decision-making. We will begin to feel burned out, and this can lead to unhealthy cognitive distortions, such as making assumptions without evidence, thinking in all-or-nothing in terms, catastrophizing small inconveniences, over-analyzing, or ruminating over negative narratives. We will be much more likely to become easily agitated, frustrated, anxious, overwhelmed, and discouraged. When we are burned out due to poor sleep, our relationships become affected, both our physical and mental energy suffers, and we may even find ourselves “zoning out” during the day because our brains are literally begging for rest.
If you often find yourself sacrificing sleep to have more waking hours, I want you to really ask yourself if you are functioning at your best during those extra waking hours. Take some time to evaluate the impact of sacrificing sleep on your daytime performance and quality of life. What do you notice? How does your performance differ with varying amounts of sleep? How do your relationships and social energy differ in response to sleep? How is your mental health impacted? Do you know how much sleep you need to feel your best? How might you experiment with your sleep to assess for changes in your daytime mood and energy?
It’s important to be consistent with bedtimes and wake up times. Following a healthy sleep routine – even on weekends – helps you maintain your body’s internal clock. This means your body will be naturally conditioned to falling asleep and waking up more easily. Even if real life sometimes gets in the way of achieving your ideal sleep routine, doing your best to maintain as much consistency as possible will improve your sleep significantly. Anything you can do to achieve a more balanced routine will be helpful but remember to avoid perfectionism. Don’t stare at the clock at night worrying about your difficulty falling asleep and its impact on your routine. In fact, sometimes putting your clock out of your view at night can be helpful because while it’s so tempting to stare at the clock when you’re struggling to sleep, this habit is actually counterproductive and often keeps us awake at night worrying about how much sleep we are losing as we watch time go by. Ditch the clock if you need to. Trust that your alarm will go off in the morning as planned (or set two alarms if you tend to feel anxious about oversleeping).
You’ll want to make your bedroom as comfortable as possible. Is the room temperature right for you? Is the lighting too bright or too dark? What is your ideal blanket situation? Some people prefer only a lightweight sheet while others crave feeling buried under weighted blankets and heavy comforters. Experiment to find what you like best. Do you need the room to be totally silent? Or do you prefer to fall asleep with to audio from a television, fan, or nature sounds like ocean waves, thunderstorms, or other types of white noise? It may be worthwhile to invest in an ambient sound machine or explore free online resources for relaxing audio intended for sleep.
Before bed, avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or other chemicals that are known to interfere with sleep. Most people also benefit from having a calming pre-sleep period or bedtime ritual. Ask yourself, what would help you wind down before sleeping? The answer should not be stimulating activities like aerobic exercise, late-night work, or time staring at electronics. For the best sleep, you’ll want to avoid technology like your phone, computer, or tablet before bed because these devices keep your brain active and are counterproductive to winding down. Especially for anyone addicted to social media, it’s critical to avoid scrolling through sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok. We often get stuck in a “scrolling vortex” and it’s tough to break out of it. Plus, you might be comparing yourself to images on social media, feeling mixed emotions about what everyone else is posting, or anxiously wondering about how your posts are being perceived – these are all things that are bound to interfere with your sleep.
Healthy alternatives to electronics for your calming routine before bed might include reading, using essential oils, stress-relief products, candles, soft music, herbal tea, mindfulness exercises, journaling, coloring, or taking a hot shower. Personally, I love hot showers before bed because it’s not only soothing to warm up and breathe in steam, but it also gives me the refreshed feeling of “washing off the daytime stress.” It offers a marked indicator for your mind to shift gears and realize “the day is now over, time to shift into relaxing nighttime mode.” If relaxing showers aren’t your thing, do whatever else helps you feel soothed at night. Change into your cozy pajamas. Wash your face. Do some meditative yoga. Grab a book you’ve been meaning to read. Write down what you were grateful for today. Breathe and remember whatever you didn’t get done today will always be there for you tomorrow. Most importantly, allow yourself compassion and grace by recognizing that you are only human, you need sleep, you deserve rest, and your mind and body will thank you for it.
If difficulty sleeping becomes unmanageable, please talk with your doctor. There are many treatment options available to help you get the sleep you need. You may also benefit from therapy with a mental health professional. Talking about what’s keeping you up at night can help relieve nighttime anxiety. Sometimes we just need a safe space to get things off our chest. Having an outlet to talk about the stress you feel can go a long way. Always remember to reach out for help if you need it – you don’t have to ever feel alone.